The Most Travel-Worthy Music Festivals in California

  • 01 of 09

    California's Most Travel-Worthy Music Festivals

    2014 Bottlerock Music Festival
    ••• FilmMagic / Getty Images

    Considering going to a music festival in California this year, but have no idea where to start? Here's our guide to when and where all the big festivals happen, when you need to buy tickets, where to stay, and what you can do when you're not listening to music.

    Ticket-Buying Strategies

    Major festivals like Coachella sell out within hours of tickets going on sale.

    To get ahead of the crowd, sign up for the festival newsletter and follow them on social media. You may get access to advance ticket sales that way.

    Don't hesitate or spend too long making up your mind about going. If you do, you may lose out. Instead, buy your tickets for major festivals early even if the lineup isn't announced yet. If you change your mind, you can resell them on Stubhub or through your friends.

    Hotel Tips for Your Music Festival Trip

    If you want to stay in a hotel while attending the festival, reserve your room as far ahead of time as you can, as soon as the hotel reservations window opens up. For...MORE many hotel chains, that's about a year ahead of time.

    If you are a member of a hotel rewards program, that may give you access to rooms earlier than the general public. Most programs are free to join.

    Check the cancellation policies in case you change your mind, and keep track of when you need to release the reservation to avoid penalties.

    If you're going with a group of friends and booking several rooms, it's nice if someone has a suite where you can all hang out.

    You might get a hotel at the last minute if you know how: Pick a few hotels that you might want to stay in, even though they are currently sold out. Find out when their group and individual cancellation cutoff dates are. Call or check online on those dates, looking for rooms that others may have released.

    Vacation Rental Tips

    Using a vacation rental service or Airbnb, you can create an experience that feels like summer camp with your friends. However, rentals are even more scarce than hotel rooms and some owners crank their rates up to as a result.

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  • 02 of 09

    Coachella: Palm Springs in April

    2015 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Weekend 1 - Day 2
    ••• Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival. Christopher Polk / Getty Images

    If you had to describe Coachella in just one word, it would have to be "big." By attendance, it's one of the two biggest music festivals in California (the other is Outside Lands). Since new attendance maximums were implemented in 2016, it gets 125,000 visitors a day over its two-weekend run. Imagine it. That's like the entire population of Ventura showing up in one place, every day.

    The festival site is also big. So big that unless you camp out in front a stage hours ahead of time, you may feel like you're so far away from the performers that you'd might as well be in Tucson.

    Music genres at Coachella include rock, indie, electronica and hip hop. Artists range from the biggest in the business to the up-and-coming.

    Location: Indio, California (south of Palm Springs)

    Typical Dates: Late April. Check this year's schedule on their website

    How to Decide if Coachella Is For You

    Coachella calls itself a music and arts festival. With an emphasis on the music part. But...MORE Coachella is more than just music, with scores of food vendors and art installations that include works commissioned for the festival.

    Coachella veterans who first attended in the early 2000s complain that it has lost much of its charm. Many of them say that it's worth the trip if you want to see their headline acts, but otherwise, it's more of a place to see and be seen. In fact, some go so far as to say it's just one big fashion show (and these days, that would be hipster and boho chic).

    That doesn't stop people from going by the tens of thousands, though. In fact, some people report feeling let down for a week after they go, as if the real world had gone from Technicolor to black and white.

    Check Coachella's YouTube Channel for scenes from previous festivals

    Don't look at just the ticket cost when deciding about attending. FORBES magazine looked at 19 popular festivals and confirmed what you might already know: Coachella has some of the most expensive general admission and VIP ticket prices of any festival. But when they added up all the other costs of attending, it was not the most costly by far.

    On a festival day, visitors outnumber the Indio residents by about two to one. You can guess what that does to traffic. If you're not camping at the festival, allow lots of time to get there.

    Indio is in a desert. That means hot sun, dust, and sometimes lots of wind. If you don't like those things, Coachella isn't for you. Know the weather. April in the Coachella Valley might be hotter than you think. Check the seasonal averages and then check the forecast a couple of times before you pack.

    You can find information about this year's lineup, ticket purchases, and more at the Coachella website.

    How and When to Get Tickets to Coachella

    Tickets usually go on sale around the first week in January. They offer three-day passes that are good for one of the two festival weekends.

    You can also buy advance tickets shortly after this year's festival ends. Within a week or so, check their website to find out when they will start selling tickets for next year. You won't know the lineup yet, but you get a discount for early purchase.

    How and When to Find a Place to Stay for Coachella

    The Coachella website has an up-to-date summary of all the places to stay, with links to hotel packages and hotel reservations.

    Use a map to help you understand where all of those myriad towns in the area are. And here's a big hint: Palm Springs isn't all that close. In fact, it's almost 30 traffic-filled miles away.

    One of the best ways to experience Coachella is to camp on site. You don't have to tangle with traffic, and the experience makes it feel even more like summer camp for adults. You can camp in your car or in your own tent — or rent one of their safari tents or a Tee Pee at Lake Eldorado. Camping trailers, RVs, motorhomes, buses and U-Haul trucks are not allowed. ​Get all the details here.​

    Traveling to Palm Springs

    You can fly to the Palm Springs airport from most cities in California, but service is somewhat limited, and tickets can be expensive. Other airports in the region are Ontario (95 miles), Orange County (130 miles), Burbank (140 miles), LAX (150 miles), and San Diego (160 miles).

    You can get to Palm Springs on Amtrak, but schedules are limited, and many of their routes actually use buses instead of trains.

    Extend your Trip: What Else to Do Nearby

    If you go ahead of time or stay an extra day or if you're looking for something to do with a free morning, you can take a driving tour around the Coachella Valley to see some of California's oddest and most fascinating sights. There are plenty of things to do in Palm Springs, as well. 

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  • 03 of 09

    Hardly Strictly Bluegrass: San Francisco in October

    Crowd at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
    ••• Crowd at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. ih/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

    Who knew bluegrass music was so popular? Well... at least every single one of the 750,000 fans who flock to Golden Park every year for the three-day Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.

    If you're scratching your head trying to figure out what bluegrass music is, Bill Monroe (who created it) characterized it this way: "Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin'. It's Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It's blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound."

    The San Francisco Chronicle says Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is one of the things you must do in the Bay Area before you die.

    Location: Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

    Typical Dates: Early October. Check this year's schedule on their website

    How to Decide if Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Is For You

    If you love bluegrass music, this festival is the place to be. As long as you don't mind the crowds. They have seven stages and over 100 artists, but that still works out to a lot of people everywhere.

    Early October weather...MORE in San Francisco is usually good, with clear skies and sunshine. See the annual weather averages for a better idea of typical conditions and check the short-term forecast before you go.

    You can see some of the previous years' performances on the Hardly Strictly website.

    How and When to Get Tickets

    Admission to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is free, and you don't need tickets. How great is that? It's thanks to an endowment the festival's founder Warren Hellman.

    When other festivals are charging $300 or more for general admission tickets, that makes this one the best bargain of the year.

    How and When to Find a Place to Stay for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

    You'll find plenty of hotels in San Francisco, but few are close to Golden Gate Park. The guide to finding the best place to stay in San Francisco has everything you need to know about hotels and other lodgings.

    You can't camp in Golden Gate Park, and there are few places to camp anywhere in the area. Use this guide to find the camping options near San Francisco.

    Traveling to San Francisco

    The closest airport is SFO, but you have several other options in the San Francisco area.

    If you live close enough, you can take CalTrain or BART to San Francisco and use public transit or a shared ride service to get to the park. The nearest Amtrak station is across the Bay in Emeryville, but they do offer a bus service from there to the San Francisco waterfront.

    If you're coming from Southern California, use this guide to see all your transportation options.​

    Extend your Trip: What Else to Do Nearby

    If you go ahead of time, you may want to explore Golden Gate Park

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  • 04 of 09

    Outside Lands: San Francisco in August

    Outside Lands Music And Arts Festival - Lands End Stage - Day 3
    ••• Lands End Stage at Outside Lands. FilmMagic / Getty Images

    Outside Lands attracts some of the biggest names in music. Headliners in the past few years have included Metallica (twice), Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Kanye West, Elton John, The Who, and Radiohead.

    Some people say it's the perfect place for an outdoor music festival, with Golden Gate Park's natural greenery providing sound dampening that keeps one artist from blending in with another.

    Outside Lands is one of California's two biggest music festivals (the other is Coachella). But compared to Coachella, it's a veritable ghost town with only about 70,000 people attending per day. Pack those people into Golden Gate Park, and it's still a busy festival scene.

    Location: Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

    Typical Dates: One weekend Friday through Sunday in mid-August. Check this year's schedule on their website

    How to Decide if Outside Lands Is For You

    Expect tons of people, jammed into spaces that would better suit about half that many.

    Oddly, Outside Lands does not allow...MORE in-and-out access. Once you go in, you can't re-enter unless you speak to a Supervisor before you leave to get scanned out. If you only want to see a couple of acts, this may be more trouble than you're willing to put up with.

    August weather in San Francisco varies, and you can expect anything from sunny, clear skies to chilly fog. See annual weather averages for a better idea of typical conditions and check the short-term forecast before you go. It might look good on the surface but dig deeper. High 70s in the day might be perfect for that sleeveless tee and shorts, but by the time the fog rolls in, you'll be happy you brought lots of layers.

    How and When to Get Tickets to Outside Lands

    Early bird tickets usually go on sale in late March, but they may not announce the lineup until later. Don't wait around for the announcement, just buy them right away. For a festival like Outside Lands, you can always resell them later if you decide not to go.

    In 2017, VIP tickets were sold out by April, and general admission tickets were almost gone.

    Outside Lands only sells three-day tickets. They're about the same price as the other big festivals like Coachella and Stagecoach. You get one wristband that's good for all three days and can't sell just one day to someone else.

    How and When to Find a Place to Stay for Outside Lands.

    Almost half of Outside Lands attendees come from out of town. Residents who live near the park sometimes choose to move out and rent their places on AirBNB, but they may charge four times the going rate or more. And with new restrictions that went into place in 2017, they may become even harder to find and more expensive.

    You'll find plenty of hotels in San Francisco, but few are really close to Golden Gate Park. The guide to finding the best place to stay in San Francisco has everything you need to know about hotels and other lodgings. To avoid sellouts and high prices, make a hotel reservation as far in advance as you can.

    You can't camp in Golden Gate Park, and there are few places to camp anywhere in the area. Use this guide to find the camping options near San Francisco.

    Traveling to San Francisco

    The closest airport is SFO, but you have several other options in the San Francisco area.

    If you live close enough, you can take CalTrain or BART to San Francisco and use public transit or a shared ride service to get to the park. The nearest Amtrak station is across the Bay in Emeryville, but they do offer a bus service from there to the San Francisco waterfront.

    If you're coming from Southern California, use this guide to see all your transportation options.

    Extend your Trip: What Else to Do Nearby

    If you go ahead of time, you may want to explore Golden Gate Park using this handy guide. It will even help you understand why the festival's website features windmills and buffalo.

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  • 05 of 09

    Stagecoach Festival: Palm Springs in April

    2016 Stagecoach California's Country Music Festival - Day 3
    ••• Stagecoach California's Country Music Festival. Getty Images for Stagecoach / Getty Images

    The short description of the Stagecoach Festival is Coachella for country music fans. It's held in the same place and run by the same promoters. It started in 2007 with a few fliers posted at the local feed stores but has grown an attendance of 90,000-plus per day.

    Location: Indio, California (south of Palm Springs)

    Typical Dates: Late April. Check this year's schedule on their website

    How to Decide if the Stagecoach Festival Is For You

    Besides the music, you can enjoy a lot of other activities that may include cowboy cooking lessons, a chance to see the Budweiser Clydesdale horses, or you might get to test drive an off-road vehicle.

    Once you get into Stagecoach, you're there for the day. They don't allow re-entry.

    The festival location is in the desert. That probably means sunny — and late April in the Palm Springs area can be scorching. Know the weather. Check the seasonal averages and then check the forecast a couple of times before you pack.

    You can find information about...MORE this year's lineup, ticket purchases, and more at the Stagecoach Festival website.

    How and When to Get Tickets to the Stagecoach Festival

    Advance tickets go on sale in mid-July, but only for a few hours. The remaining tickets are released to the public later, typically in mid-November.

    They sell a three-day pass only and don't think about using it for one day and removing it to let someone else wear it.

    General admission is the same price as Coachella. Reserved seating packages sell out first. In 2017, they still had general admission tickets available a week before the festival date.

    How and When to Find a Place to Stay for the Stagecoach Festival

    The Stagecoach Festival website offers travel packages and information about getting hotel rooms. They also have an RV resort area.

    Use a map to help you understand where all of those myriad towns in the area are. And here's a big hint: Palm Springs isn't all that close. In fact, it's almost 30 traffic-filled miles away.

    Traveling to Palm Springs

    You can fly to the Palm Springs airport from most cities in California, but service is somewhat limited, and tickets can be expensive. Other airports in the region are Ontario (95 miles), Orange County (130 miles), Burbank (140 miles), LAX (150 miles), and San Diego (160 miles).

    You can get to Palm Springs on Amtrak, but schedules are limited, and many of their routes actually use buses instead of trains.

    Extend your Trip: What Else to Do Nearby

    If you go ahead of time or stay an extra day or if you're looking for something to do with a free morning, you can take a driving tour around the Coachella Valley to see some of California's oddest and most fascinating sights. Or consider exploring Palm Springs.

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  • 06 of 09

    BottleRock: Napa in May

    2014 Bottlerock Music Festival
    ••• Bottlerock Music Festival. FilmMagic / Getty Images

    The Sacramento Bee describes BottleRock this way: "BottleRock is the kind of festival where blues legend Buddy Guy rips through a cover of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” while alt-rock favorites Grouplove perform a version of Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” on a nearby stage."

    And that's while you're sipping some top-notch wine or watching a celebrity cooking demonstration.

    Location: Napa, California (in the town of Napa)

    Typical Dates: Memorial Day weekend at the end of May. Check this year's schedule on their website

    How to Decide if BottleRock Is For You

    Compared to other music festivals in California, BottleRock is medium-sized. It's big enough to draw some top performers but small enough that you don't feel like you're in a battle scene from one of the Lord of the Rings movies.

    Some people get more excited about the food than the performers at BottleRock. When you put on a music festival in the middle of Napa Valley, you have to "bring it" with the...MORE wine and food, and they do. Their wines are selected by a staff of experts, and the food comes from the area's finest chefs. You can also watch cooking demonstrations done by chefs whose names you will recognize from all those cooking shows you watch in your spare time.

    The end of May can be iffy weather-wise in Northern California, with a chance of cloudy skies — or extreme heat. Checking the forecast regularly during the week before the festival is the only way to know what to expect.

    It's exceptionally hard to find this on their website, but the address for the festival is 575 3rd St. in Napa, CA which is at the Napa Fairgrounds. It's in the middle of a town that has fewer residents than the number of festival-goers — you can guess what that means for traffic. If you bring your bicycle, you can bike to the festival from your hotel and take advantage of their free bicycle parking area.

    The festival also offers daily bus services from nearby cities including Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Rosa, and Sonoma. You can find a full list and buy your bus tickets on the BottleRock website.

    How and When to Get Tickets to BottleRock

    Tickets usually go on sale shortly after January 1. In 2017, the three-day passes sold out in a single day.

    Unlike the other big festivals, BottleRock sells both one-day and three-day tickets. They also offer a ticket exchange platform on their website for people to sell passes they can't use.

    How and When to Find a Place to Stay for BottleRock

    The simple fact is that the Napa area doesn't have enough hotel rooms to accommodate the masses of people who want to go to BottleRock. Use our hotel reservation tips on page one of this guide and don't wait. Otherwise, you'll end up staying miles away and waste your time in mind-numbing traffic.

    Find out where the hotels are and get practical tips for finding your perfect place to stay, check the Napa Valley Lodging Guide.

    You also have a few options for camping in the Napa Valley

    Traveling to Napa

    The nearest big airports are SFO and Oakland. Both are about the same distance from Napa. There's also a regional airport in Santa Rosa which is about the same distance away.

    Extend your Trip: What Else to Do Nearby

    If you go ahead of time, you may want to try some of the ideas in the Napa Valley Getaway Guide.

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  • 07 of 09

    Kaaboo: San Diego in September

    KAABOO Del Mar: The KAABOO Experience - General - Day 1
    ••• KAABOO Del Mar. WireImage for Kaaboo Del Mar via / Getty Images

    Kaaboo describes itself like this: "...created by music lovers for music lovers. An adult escape uniquely curated to appeal to all five of your senses, with world-class music, hilarious comedy, incredible cuisine, craft libations, inspiring contemporary art, and personal indulgences."

    People who have been there say it's like Coachella for grownups, more laid back and cleaner. Their artists include huge headliners mixed with up-and-coming musicians, comedians, and '90s acts.

    Location: Del Mar, CA (north of San Diego)

    Typical Dates: Mid-September. Check this year's schedule on their website

    How to Decide if Kaaboo Is For You

    The crowd at Kaaboo is a mix of ages, and even if you're a millennial or older, you won't end up standing around feeling like that out-of-place oldster at a kids' birthday party.

    Kaaboo prides itself on creating a more refined music festival experience, with cleaner restrooms and more ways to pamper yourself. Artists attend and create their...MORE work throughout the festival.

    Don't make bad assumptions about what the weather might be like at Kaaboo. Find out the typical San Diego weather to get an idea, but also check the current forecasts for a few days before you go.

    To keep the music from disturbing the neighbors, performances are all indoors after 10:00 p.m. The indoor venues can fill up fast, and people get cranky when they can't get in. It's best to have an alternative or two in mind in case that happens to you.

    If you park in the lots at Kaaboo, they provide shuttles from the parking lot. But there's a better way to go: San Diego has the world's best pedicab drivers and taking one is a fun splurge that can also be really entertaining.

    You can find information about this year's lineup, ticket purchases, and more at the Kaaboo Festival website.

    How and When to Get Tickets to Kaaboo

    Kaaboo puts early bird tickets on sale before the last of the trash cans are emptied. In other words, immediately after the festival ends. The lineup is usually announced in mid to late March.

    Kaaboo offers 3-day passes only, in tiers. Their lowest-priced general admission pass is the least expensive of California's big music festivals.

    How and When to Find a Place to Stay for Kaaboo

    Kaaboo is held in Del Mar, a northern suburb of San Diego which has less than a dozen hotels. The next nearest places to stay would be Solana Beach, La Jolla, Encinitas, or Sorrento Valley.

    You can also stay in other parts of San Diego

    You can't camp at the festival but you can use the San Diego Campground Guide to find the perfect spot for you.  

    Traveling to Del Mar and San Diego

    The nearest airports are San Diego (30 miles) and Orange County (65 miles).

    If you are going to Del Mar from the Los Angeles area, you can take the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner to Solana Beach, which is about a mile from the venue. From there, you can get a shuttle to Kaaboo.

    You can also take the Pacific Surfliner from San Diego. The NCTD (North Country Transportation District) Coaster also stops in Solana Beach.

    Extend your Trip: What Else to Do Nearby

    If you go ahead of time or stay an extra day, you can find a plethora of things to do in San Diego. Or find a nice beach to hang out at. 

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  • 08 of 09

    Reggae, Jazz and Blues

    Booker T. Jones at the Monterey Jazz Festival
    ••• Booker T. Jones at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Craig Lovell/Getty Images

    If you're ready for reggae or need your fix of jazz and blues music, California is home to some of the great festivals in their genres.

    Russian River Jazz & Blues: Held at Johnson's Beach on the Russian River in Guerneville, CA in early September.

    Monterey Jazz Festival: Founded in 1958, the Monterey Jazz Festival is the world's longest-running jazz festival. It runs from Friday evening through Sunday night, on the third weekend in September.

    California Roots Reggae Festival claims to be the largest reggae-rock festival in the world. It's held in Monterey, CA near the end of May.

    JazzTrax Festival Catalina is one of two festivals organized by JazzTrax. It's held in October over two weekends and draws more international attendees than you might expect.

    JazzTrax Festival Big Bear is held in June at Big Bear Lake near Los Angeles.

    San Jose Jazz FestivalThe mid-August San Jose Jazz Summer Fest is one of the biggest in California, with performers in a wide range of jazz...MORE genres including straight-ahead, contemporary and Latin jazz, R&B and funk, blues, big band, and salsa.

    Those are the highlights, but they're not all. If you're looking for summer entertainment, the California Jazz Festival Guide has more information.

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  • 09 of 09

    More California Music Festivals You Should Know About

    Performers at Lightning in a Bottle
    ••• Performers at Lightning in a Bottle. C Flanigan / Getty Images

    If those big music festivals aren't for you, think about trying some of these events instead.

    Lightning in a Bottle: May

    It started out as a private birthday party but has grown into the second largest transformational festival in the world with an annual attendance of close to 20,000. What is a transformational festival, you might be wondering? Put as simply as possible, it's an event that builds a community and tries to help its attendees (and society) transform through the arts, classes, drum circles, and ceremonies.

    Lightning in a Bottle is produced by Do LaB, who also organize Coachella. Among the things you'll find there are three-dimensional art installations, yoga classes, meditation workshops, games, and performances. The stages are designed to resemble flowers, trees, and other natural settings.

    The festival is held Memorial Day weekend (end of May) at Lake San Antonio, off US Hwy 101 about halfway between LA and San Francisco. You can find out more about it at the...MORE Lightning in a Bottle website.

    Joshua Tree Music Festival: May and October

    This festival in the desert near Palm Springs says "These intimate, family-friendly experiences in the magical Mojave go deep to create positive and meaningful life-changing moments. The music is diverse, positive and potent; featuring artists on the rise. A happy, loving and egalitarian space is created, where the boundary between artist and audience is blurred."

    The festival takes place twice a year. You can get details at the Joshua Tree Music Festival website.

    Beyond Wonderland

    Beyond Wonderland is like Las Vegas' Electric Daisy Carnival, with an immersive, fantasy world and the best in electronic dance music. You can go twice a year if you want to: It happens in SoCal in San Bernardino in March and in NorCal at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View September.

    All the details are at the Beyond Wonderland website.